Monday, July 19, 2010

Time spent in the sand...


I was starting to worry the longer I waited to download my impressions of Dubai the more watered down they would become. It was one of the most interesting, surprising, thrilling 20 hours I have spent that sweaty...ever. We had been sort of prepping ourselves for a few sleepless nights as we left Paris at 9:30 PM arriving in Dubai at 6:30AM ready for the day that would consist of a whirlwind of adventure till we headed BACK to the airport at 3:30AM to catch our flight to Male. It all started out easy till we reached the airport and saw the 90 min line ahead of us to check our bags. Once we finally reached the front it was almost boarding time and the sweat had already begun to form on our brows. We had high expectations for Emirates Air. Everyone we spoke with that had experience with this airline had only good things to say. As our bags begun to weigh in we started to sense an issue. The woman at the desk quickly became frustrated and rudely threw up her arms and said sorry, too heavy you must have 30 kilos total between all bags (60 lbs) and we had about 80 between our 3 bags. We were shoved aside and told to wait, as we couldn't be let through with our current little problem. We asked to speak with the manager, explained United allowed us 50lbs each bag and we were sorry but we pleaded ignorance and overly ambitious honeymooners. Then the managers manager came over and eventually must have felt sorry for us and waived us through. Rushing to get through security they started boarding and our names were called on the loud speaker. Great, now we definitely aren't going to make it to Dubai. They said there was something with our tickets... blah blah and handed us new tickets. Well they proudly read, "Business Class." HA, after all that our next 8 hour journey was about to be spiced up a bit. We had champagne when we sat down and the rest was a blur of a 4 course dinner and restless yet now very horizontal sleep.

Hello Desert.

We knew it would be 120 degrees and you can talk to yourself about preparing for that all you want but until you've actually stepped foot in that sauna with your Muslim approved tourist clothes on you really appreciate the functionality of the Arab dress. Artie Keown was our wonderful hands off tour guide having arranged quite the schedule for us. First we were directed at the airport towards the ‘woman’s taxi,’ not sure why but off to Artie’s we went in a pink mini van to drop off our stuff.

His apartment is amazing. A 2 story loft on the 40th floor of a 41 floor building overlooking Jumeirah Beach complete with 2 hilarious rescued cats, 'boy cat' and 'Dinah' who argued profusely over who got to play in our suitcases. A quick hello to Artie, who I realized I hadn't seen since high school graduation 9 years ago; and we were off to the Jumeirah Mosque. Now having been to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul I guess I assumed all central Mosques would be just as grand. When the taxi dropped us off we were both thinking really…..this is it? Or this is the Hollywood version? Appropriately situated across the street from a rather large Starbucks AND a TGIF Friday's we felt like we had arrived in a Disney world set of "Dubai World" except that the temperature was a constant reminder we really were in the desert. We had an hour long informational tour that discussed little about the Mosque and more about the Muslim Religion. The two British Muslim women made a great case for conversion until they really didn’t have great responses for why there was a “womans pray room,” and a “mans pray room,” and why it truly is better to be in an Abaya (traditional black “cloak”) because you get to wear your ‘nighties’ underneath it all day without ever having to worry what to wear. Hmmm… on second thought…..I’ll keep my closet for now.

Next stop, a place I had been looking forward to for years, the Burj al Arab. I had studied it, read about it and gone to the website a hundred times. The "only hotel in the world with a 7 star rating." Obviously their management team came up with that little phrase but it does breed high expectations...

The Burj Al Arab was amazing to taxi up to. Truly a wonder. A helicopter was landing on the helipad that doubles for a tennis court and my mouth was watering to get there. Artie had booked us a Sky Lounge Afternoon Tea which is one of very few ways anyone can actually get inside, outside of paying the 1k minimum for a room a night (which until the big stock market crash was more like 4k/night min). First impressions; if the exterior was extremely interesting from an architectural standpoint, the interior left a lot to be desired. I can't begin to describe the let down. Of course I was still excited, but after examining the first level we had been instructed to spend 45 minutes praising before our tea, I was almost stand still shocked thinking, “seriously???”. Sure, there is pure gold in the marble flooring and a colorful fountain that responds to the colorfully tiered ceiling but it is reminiscent of a Vegas hotel that got stuck in the 80’s and never reinvented itself. But it was actually finished in the late 90’s?! Since we were advised tea seriously didn't start for another 45 min Alex thought we should head to the top anyways. The elevator was glass and offered a great view of the dusty city but nothing of the state of the art deluxe experience I beefed up to Alex and myself. The top confirmed my impressions. Not only was it covered in classless chrome but it was just such a let down. The tea wasn't cheap but the decor took cheap to a whole new level considering its status and presence. Regardless, we had a great time drinking wine and champagne instead of "tea" with our petite fours and miniature sandwiches and gazing out over the blurry city skyline. Unfortunately for us a large dust storm had overtaken Dubai so everything felt like it existed within a smoggy bubble. We still had great views of the marina below, and the islands I had heard so much about called "The Palm," and "The World," which I had studied and read about as well and had been very curious to actually see in person. I hope I don't sound snotty, as it was a wonderful experience just a little bit like deflating an egoist.

On to the Burj Khalifa. WOW.

This beautiful piece of construction has defied the odds of its time and our imagination. Approaching, the landscape its stunning both during the day and at night. Extractions of the building form were perfectly placed around the base in water and beautiful green grasses, and at night... well read on. Heading up to the top you enter via the Mall Dubai. In its own right, that mall deserves its own piece so more on that later. The Armani Hotel occupies the base of the building, his first experience delving into this realm and I would say after having a drink in the bar and judging the lobby he did an almost perfect job. You glide up the the elevator learning about the architecture and form behind the building, quotes touting the Sheikh Khalifa (the current owner who purchased the building amid great controversy as it was originally titled the Burj Dubai till the market's crashed and Dubai had to be bailed out from Abu Dhabi and its Sheikh) and it is all done very classy. We get to the elevator and soar up to the top in what feels like 30 seconds. Looking down it looked like renderings. Looking out, it really sinks in what a desert this place is. There is development in a small circle from the building but everything else is vast desert. It really gave a great perspective of the area. Especially when you witness the amount of clear blue water and perfectly manicured greenscapes, its all just so surreal.

We headed back down to meet up with Artie and saw the aquarium at the Mall Dubai and headed out for the water experience. If you have been to the Vegas show in front of the Bellagio, this is about 5 times the size. The lights begin to dim and the buildings and landscape flicker in a light show that rivals anything I've ever seen or heard of. Its simply incredible if you can mind the heat. We searched for a place to eat where we could also indulge in a nice cold beer and surprising that is relatively easy. It had to be connected to a hotel for Muslim/law reasons but virtually everything is. There are plenty of very modern amazing restaurants that surround the water show so we happily chose a Thai place and decided to sit outside in the sauna for the full experience. Regardless of how much water you drink, and cold towels they give you for your forehead its HOT. I've never sweated so much in my life but strangely it was worth it.

Besides the skyline, I found one of the most beautiful elements to be the women. Their eyes are stunning and deep, and their dress accentuates the mystery. Fully in black they move around space like quiet ghosts. Spooky yet elegant. I wanted to take hundreds of pictures but that would have been a bit awkward. They all distinguish themselves with their purse and shoe collections. With enormous Louis Vuitton bags and stylish Chanel sandals, they shop and pray all day. The conveniently large prayer rooms in the malls are at least four times the size of the ones we saw in the Jumeirah Mosque. In the summer since it is so hot they spend each and every day at the mall. I half don’t blame them, the food courts are more incredible that the offerings on Michigan Avenue and with aquariums, museums and book stores the size of a Wal-mart there is plenty to do in between your five regimented prayers with your lady friends. The pizza parlors have herb gardens growing in them and a guy clips your choices to add to your selected pie. If you don’t want to eat local cuisine, there is plenty of American chains and virtually any kind of food from around the world to choose from. In Mall Dubai, there is even a Bloomingdales right next to the Red Mango in case you really missed home.

The beautiful skyline, the fresh green parks, the magical water fountains...that, is the Dubai on the shimmering surface. I came to find the other Dubai has many secrets hidden in the shadows....

They have some of the largest prostitution rings in the world, and the child sex trafficking and camel jockeying is also still prevalent despite attempts to curb it over the past few years. The Princes and Sheikh's of the Middle East may wear their religious capes like warriors for Allah but behind the scenes they deceptively crave beyond western indulgences. The global tourism perpetuates it too. As a westerner you may be arrested on the beach for making out with your wife, but at a five star hotel bar you can easily pick up a girl to grant whatever your heart's desire. It’s become a sexual playground for the global business man. It may be illegal in the Quran, but in reality its without a doubt acceptable and everywhere. Slavery. in some sense of the word is also somewhat common and normal. If you wish to keep a maid, she more than likely gets put on your visa so she can stay long term and at that point she could be considered indebted to you for a period of time.

Anyways, I digress.... Like I said, it was an interesting adventure. We were however, so glad we went and honestly I want to go back. They have a shopping festival in the winter (when the weather is actually tolerable) and merchants bring goods from around the world and the malls stay open till 3am. Artie was a priceless tour guide, offering history, expat perspectives and a great itinerary. At the end of several glasses of wine and a bottle of champagne back at his place (which he bought for us to celebrate our honeymoon) before heading to the airport, we nicknamed him Artie Fantastic. Ill be back someday….

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Perfect in Paris

I have should have kept a better journal for all my thoughts in France. Instead, they are (un)neatly kept on cafe napkins and hotel papers. I hadn't been to France in over 10 years but it was as my mind had kept it.

When I must have been 13, I toured around the the Eiffel Tower eating chocolate crepes, watching people holding hands as the evening dimmed to a lovely summer romance thinking how I hoped to one day come with my signifiant other. Little did I know how cliche it was to go to Paris on a honeymoon but now I realize there is a reason most times for cliches. Paris is perfect for love.... even as it rains right now (the only reason I am on my computer and not out wondering the streets). The hotel has fresh cut flowers, and I am drinking rose champagne listening to some pretty fantastic music out of San Francisco (The Six Parts Seven), watching people scram for cover, pigeons find leftover crumbs from a passerby's croissant and Alex is reading right next to me. We often pondered whether it was worth coming here for a weekend because once you catch up with the jet lag its time to head back home. But that being said, even if you manage one great evening and a few hours of sunshine during the day it really is worth the while. For the bread (and the butter), the pastries and chocolate, the shopping on every corner, the parks and the river. It is so absolutely lovely.

Most would probably argue you could eat good food, walk along the water and enjoy the sunshine a lot of places, but as cliche as it may be its really perfect in Paris.